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US says Russia's Wagner Group seeking to transit military equipment through Mali

FILE PHOTO: Wagner private military group centre opens in St Petersburg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department on Monday said Russia's Wagner Group is trying to obscure its efforts to acquire military equipment for use in Ukraine, adding that Washington has been informed the mercenary force is seeking to move those acquisitions through Mali to aid Russia in its war.

Wagner is willing to use false paperwork for such transactions, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters at a regular news briefing.

"There are indications that Wagner has been attempting to purchase military systems from foreign suppliers and route these weapons through Mali as a third party," Miller said.

"We have not seen as of yet any indications that these acquisitions have been finalized or executed, but we are monitoring the situation closely."

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Miller said Washington has imposed sanctions on a number of people and entities that support Wagner's military operations, and said the United States would have more to share soon.

Reuters could not immediately reach Mali's government for comment.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, on Wednesday dismissed the U.S. allegations as a "hoax" in a news conference and urged Washington to examine the effect of its own military exports.

Wagner mercenaries have fought alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine, including in some of the most intense battles such as the ongoing fight for control of Bakhmut.

Western countries have raised concerns over Wagner's activities in Mali since late 2021. The West African country, whose leaders seized power in a 2021 coup, and Russia have previously maintained that Russian forces there are not mercenaries but trainers helping local troops with equipment bought from Russia.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Katharine Jackson, Simon Lewis and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mark Porter, Jonathan Oatis and Nick Macfie)